Plan to make landmark clocks automatic

The Canongate Tollbooth clock is moved forward for the beginning of British Summer Tme. Picture: Julie Bull
The Canongate Tollbooth clock is moved forward for the beginning of British Summer Tme. Picture: Julie Bull
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HISTORIC hand-wound clocks at landmark buildings such as the Tron Kirk and St Giles’ Cathedral are to be made automatic and operated by laptop in a bid to save the Capital thousands of pounds every year.

Weekly manual windings at seven civic clocks – including The Hub, St Stephen’s Church and St Mary’s Church in Bellevue Crescent – will be axed if new plans are approved.

Instead, electrical-mechanical “control boxes” are to be attached to each clock, allowing specialists to monitor, adjust and wind devices automatically.

Although initial conversion is set to cost the city around £25,000, it is hoped the move will eventually save £8000 in annual running expenses.

Experts said it was sad to see traditional clock-winding consigned to the history books but stressed the craft had to move with the times as city bosses labour under relentless budget pressure.

And they said laptop-controlled adjustments would help reduce health and safety risks created by working in old church buildings with poor access.

Alan Wilson, of James Ritchie and Son, which is currently contracted to wind, re-set, repair and clean public clocks throughout Edinburgh, said automatic conversion was the “modern way forward”.

He said: “The council came and asked us if it was possible and so we presented them with the costings – if the council want to go down that route, we have given them our full expertise on how to go about it.

“Possibly, access to one or two of the clocks is not terrific. The churches maybe don’t want to pay to get the access sorted out so it might make sense to go down the route of them not having to be visited on a weekly basis.

“We would maybe have liked to have kept them working mechanically for longer but needs must and the council has to make cuts where it can, and it will save a bit of money.”

He added: “The other thing is that it will make life easier for one or two of the less accessible buildings. If the churches aren’t going to make access any better then it would be better to go down the route of making them automatic.”

Under the plans, auto-wind control units, which are fully computer controlled, would be attached to each clock’s existing mechanism, meaning no alteration to the fabric of the host building.

Of the seven clocks set for conversion, six are currently wound by hand once a week, while the timepiece at St Giles’ is visited twice weekly.

Specialists also said the 
technology would enable remote adjustment in line with British Summer Time, as well as routine alterations if a clock’s mechanism falls behind or ahead.

“The risk of the clocks being made unsafe because they are not being wound up weekly would be minimal,” said Mr Wilson.

“We have plenty of clocks all over the country that work in this way. It’s not as if this is going against the grain.

“Ritchie’s and Edinburgh go back a long way. I’ve been with them 30 years and they have been wound all that time but this is the modern way forward.”

George Robinson, secretary at the One O’Clock Gun Association, called on city leaders to maintain a rigorous maintenance and inspection regime.

He said: “Things are changing so fast now – but the big thing is that you’ve got to maintain those clocks.

“Things being what they are, you’ve got to change. You’ve got to go along with new technologies. The automatic system will get better and better as time goes on.”

And he said most residents would be more concerned about preserving as many traditional clocks as possible.

“I think the main thing is that we’re keeping the clocks – I think people want to hang on to traditional clock faces,” he said. “Some people seem to want that connection with the past. It gives people a comfortable feeling when you look at it. Seeing the Balmoral clock, it just gives you a feeling of stability.”

Councillor Richard Lewis, the city’s culture and sport leader, said the proposed changes were already commonplace and working well across the UK.

He said: “It’s widely regarded as a safe, reliable and convenient way to keep historic clocks ticking and in the long-term it would save the council a lot of time and money if implemented in Edinburgh.

“We still plan to regularly clean and maintain the city’s civic clocks and carry out necessary repairs, but the winding process – which needs to take place fortnightly and even weekly at some venues – could be controlled remotely.”

He added: “This changeover could also avoid potential health and safety risks.”

Big hand for those stepping up to plate

IT might be a time-consuming job – in more senses than one – but at least it’s good exercise.

Keeping a close eye on Edinburgh’s clocks has meant tramping round town and climbing hundreds of steps to reach the tops of some of the Capital’s landmark towers in order to wind up the huge mechanisms by hand.

Confronted with the inner workings of majestic timepieces like those at St Stephen’s Church, South Leith Kirk, St Giles’ Cathedral or the Highland Tolbooth, it is then the task of the clock winder to roll up his sleeves and crank up the huge winders which turn the inner cogs hundreds of feet up in the air.

It’s a routine which has had to be undertaken three times a week to keep the Capital to perfect time.

One veteran reflecting on his unusual calling said: “You need few qualifications for this job, except strong arm muscles, a good heart to make it up all the stairs and a head for heights.” But he added: “You have to know the exact time all the time, otherwise people are late for work.”


AUTO-wind units which would be attached to civic clocks if new plans get the green light use their own barrel and weight, rewound by

a motor with battery back-up.

Designers said the weight of the units was able to drive the clock independently via a chain and sprockets.

Because it has battery back-up, the device is also capable of operating in the event of a mains power failure.

All items which need to be attached would be clamped and therefore removable at any future date with no detriment to the clock.

But even if they are fitted with auto-wind units, the timepieces will still require regular maintenance and attention.

Familiar faces

Canongate Tolbooth: Historic landmark in the Royal Mile, dating back to 1591, the building is now occupied by The People’s Story Museum.

Tron Kirk, High Street, pictured below: Formerly the principal parish church for the Capital and later the traditional spot to celebrate Hogmanay, it has not been used as a church since 1952.

Highland Tolbooth Church, Lawnmarket, pictured right: Edinburgh’s tallest spire and former home of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, it is now known as The Hub and operated by Edinburgh International Festival.

St Giles’, High Street: The Capital’s cathedral, dating from the late 14th century, it is sometimes referred to as the Mother Church of Presbyterianism.

South Leith Parish Church, Kirkgate: Its origins date back to 1483 and it played a key role in the Siege of Leith in 1560, the church is still seen as being at the heart of Leith.

Broughton St Mary’s Parish Church, Bellevue Crescent: Built as part of the New Town in 1824.

St Stephen’s Church,

St Vincent Street: Built in 1828 to a design by Playfair and bought last year by Rockstar North boss Leslie Benzies, it was last used for worship in 1992, but is a favourite Festival Fringe venue. The 162-feet-high tower has the longest clock pendulum in Europe.